The concept for this story started with a song.
Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the sky of parchment made, Were every stalk on earth a quill And every man a scribe by trade; To write the love of God above Would drain the ocean dry. Nor could the scroll contain the whole Though stretched from sky to sky.
- Fredrick Lehman
I remembered the song randomly one day, and it started a train of thought in my head that I haven't been able to shake since then. A beloved professor of mine (thank you for teaching me so much, Prof. Hill!) once said that the best stories answer a question.
That's not usually the way I start my stories, but that was how it happened this time. The story started with a question.
What would happen if a community of scribes suddenly ran out of material to write on?
It seemed like a silly question at first. But then I started thinking about it.
First, how big does a group need to be to form a community? 20 people? 50? 100?
Second, how can a group so large support itself? Are they all just scribes? Do they do anything else?
Third, what did they write on before now that was a limited resource? Why was it limited? Where did they get it, and why couldn't they get more?
Question after question after question. And rather than discouraging me, each consecutive question made me more excited to find the answer. Because the answer was the story. And each answered question built more of the setting and the background for the character that would tell me the story.
It took perhaps an hour to answer each question in turn.
And the story has been unspooling itself in my mind ever since. Here is what I've written so far:
Ganesh tapped the handle of his chisel, the ringing of the hammer against the old wood like the hollow sound of his son kicking the walls of their apartment. The runes should have held his attention. After all, a mistake now would mean hours of work to fix it. The man ceased his tapping and squinted at the stone, then lifted his lantern to shed light on the dark wall. Each character a sound and a meaning, each word an idea, each line a tale. An answer to the great question. Another piece to the puzzle.
His runes were, as usual, flawless. He wouldn't have remained a scribe for as long as he had if he hadn't the talent for it. Ganesh smiled a little and inhaled the greasy scent of his lantern. It burned oil rendered from animal fat. The smell was sour, but reminded him of dinner, still some hours off. With a sigh, he set down his lantern, dug in his memory for his master's next words, and began to tap again.
His hammer alone tapped along this stretch of wall. These days, there were rarely more than a dozen scribes working at a time. Space had become so limited, it was difficult to maneuver when more than one scribe had laid claim to a patch of wall or floor. The ceiling was less in demand, but there were also fewer scribes willing to hang in harness and tap out the messages of each sage.
Ganesh finished his rune and stepped back, looking over the wall. The floor at his feet. The ceiling overhead. The huge pillars and stalactites that descended from the high ceiling down into the city below. A glow of pride kindled in his chest as he looked over the rows and rows and rows of even, perfect runes. Answers to the great question. Tales of their city and the people that had lived there for generations beyond count. This was the work of men. Nothing could be grander than this.
Still smiling, he lifted his chisel and moved one half-step to the left. ready to start on his next line, but there were already runes there.
That wasn't too alarming. This had happened to him many times over the last 16 years. He had reached the end of his blank space, and would need to move up or down to complete his line before finding a new space to fill with runes.
Ganesh looked below his final rune. The characters there had rounded edges. It was an older form of the script, and had been there for many hundreds of months. Maybe generations. He looked above his final rune, and found the characters there holding tiny pools of water in their clean edges. These were newer, probably cut within the last two or three years as the dry walls filled up.
To the right and to the left, it was the same. There was no free space here.
The man frowned, disappointed that he would be forced to leave the line incomplete. Perhaps he ought to have used different runes that would have taken up less space. With a sigh, he picked up his bag, stowing his chisel and mallet before making his way down the long, wobbly ladder from the shelf he'd chosen that morning. He would simply have to find another space and finish the line there.
Wood worn smooth by hands and feet through the ages, the ladder shuddered under his descending weight, swaying to and fro in a way that should have alarmed Ganesh, but didn't. Only the stone was stable. He could expect that quality of nothing else.
In the light of the lantern hooked to his belt, he examined the wall as he climbed down, the dark stone throwing back facets of light at random where a rune or plane cut through a flake of quartz. Everywhere his eyes rested, there were runes begging to be read. The man silently apologized to their graceful curves and precise planes. He didn't have the leisure to read them now, but he would come back another day, and drink in their wisdom. The promise was a silent one, but a promise nonetheless. These runes deserved to tell their story.
But when he reached the floor, he had realized something more troubling than the runes' neglected reading. The wall was full. From top to bottom, there weren't even spaces between the lines to sneak in an extra rune here or there.
When he reached the cavern's floor, he studied that, too, and found runes from his grandfather's generation, the men that had cast their eyes down rather than up. That had been a good time, he remembered his grandfather saying. Forty men at a time, tapping out the messages of the greatest sages in living memory. They answered more of the great question in those 20 years than in the century before.
There was no space there, either. The pillars had been filled long before anyone now alive had been born. The ceiling had been finished just five years ago. They'd had a feast. And now there were only four scribes that still harnessed and went in search of empty spaces between lines to add their own script.
A feeling of fear started to rise in his chest as Ganesh realized something he had taken care never to think too much about before. There was nowhere left to write. There were no blank spaces left.
"Don't be silly," he told himself firmly. "Can't hardly see the whole city from here. There might still be a place."
The cavern was, after all, enormous. No matter how many generations lived and recorded their lives, the words of their sages, the names of their children - it would never really be full.
There were the tunnels, too. That thought soothed him a little. Yes, the tunnels. They weren't ideal, being very rough, but they could still make it work, one way or another.
There had to be places to write.
He didn't know how to do anything else.